Staff of YouthBuild USA plan their program’s future at their National Rural Gathering in Santa Fe, New Mexico, last week. (Photo by Karen Fasimpaur)

Rural people vary in many ways, but they share the common values of community, and they believe their communities can inspire courage. Rural people “do hard things.”

Last week, YouthBuild USA held their annual National Rural Gathering in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The three-day convening opened with a welcome from Monica Zeno-Martin, YouthBuild USA’s chief program officer, who observed that “We are in a time of real transition, globally, nationally, and in our communities.”

To respond to the new challenges faced at all levels, Zeno-Martin said that we must turn to the value of courage, a theme that was reminiscent of the discussions held at the National Rural Assembly’s convening earlier this year.

One of the core values in YouthBuild’s approach is “courage to build bridges and go where we are not expected to be.” This includes place and space, roles and responsibilities, and skill sets and philosophies.

For YouthBuild and many other organizations and individuals, “where we are not expected to be” includes rural spaces.

YouthBuild, a national job training and leadership development program focused on opportunity youth, includes a network of approximately 260 local affiliates, of which about one-third are rural. (Opportunity youth are people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither in school nor employed.)

In most social justice work, large urban programs dominate, and to have such an emphasis on rural and tribal communities shows a unique “level of commitment to an ethic and a culture,” according to Zeno-Martin. This shows courage in a non-profit space that doesn’t always understand or support rural work.

Being rural also presents challenges at local level sites, including the fact that there is “nowhere to hide in rural communities,” as Kim Phinney, vice president of program design of YouthBuild USA puts it. Doing this kind of work can be difficult in a rural community and requires immense courage.

Monica Zeno-Martin, YouthBuild USA’s chief program officer, addresses staff at the organization’s rural gathering in Santa Fe. (Photo by Karen Fasimpaur)

“Social ills hit rural communities harder,” according to Zeno-Martin. For local rural sites, this can mean higher unemployment rates, more environmental challenges, and more severe poverty, all of which YouthBuild sites seek to deal with. The youth they serve are being marginalized, and they need courageous people to help them cope with these circumstances and inspire them to bigger and better futures.

For youth at the center of this, remaking themselves or changing their personal narrative is exceedingly difficult, personally as well as from a family and community standpoint. YouthBuild tries to support rural youth in doing this by offering sanctuary and building resiliency.

“It’s incredibly courageous what our young people do,” according to Phinney. Taking the risk of being a first-generation college student or challenging family or community fears of “being better” takes courage.

This is compounded by our culture’s focus on a monolithic “American identity” that is predominantly white and urban. This requires youth who do not fit into that identity to show courage. YouthBuild programs inspire youth to be comfortable with being who they are, which can then translate into broader success in career and life goals.

“You see it and think it’s impossible, but little by little there is growth on that wall of impossibility.” (Photo by Joshua Evans)

A team member of Navajo Youth Builders in Farmington, New Mexico, Joshua Evans, told of seeing a plant grow on the side of a rocky and otherwise barren canyon on rural tribal land.

“You see it and think it’s impossible, but little by little there is growth on that wall of impossibility,” said Evans. That is the kind of courage that YouthBuild staff like Evans are called to show every day. This courage is also exhibited in the youth they serve, many of whom face challenges in securing the basics of life, including food, housing, education, and family support.

Courage also means “motivating and empowering others to do their best work,” according to Zeno-Martin. As an organization, YouthBuild does this through extensive professional development and support for the field. Community as a source of strength and wisdom is another core value of the organization.

Youth are also empowering their peers to show courage. At youth gatherings with both rural and urban participants, the courage of rural youth in being comfortable with themselves in challenging surroundings inspires their urban counterparts. When they see peers who look different or have different interests show up unabashedly, they are inspired with a new type of courage within themselves.

Despite overwhelming challenges and a dominant culture that often doesn’t embrace them, rural youth are showing courage that can inspire us all.

Karen Fasimpaur lives in rural Arizona and does consulting work for YouthBuild, the National Rural Assembly, and other rural organizations

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